Updating our Server Infrastructure

For years, the Publishing @ SFU web presence ran off a pair of Mac Minis hidden in my office, both running Linux. One was the main ‘www‘ server, the other was ‘thinkubator,’ where we ran experimental stuff. The two machines talked to each other at night, swapping backups, in case either machine were to fail. That arrangement was stable for a very long time. The machines ran Linux, which is so stable that I could ignore them for months and months and years—in truth, until they got really quite stale and out of date.

What prompted the end of this arrangement was the renovation of the bottom floors of SFU Harbour Centre. Over the past year, construction in the building has made the power go out enough times to drive me a little spare. I realized I should join the 21st century and get our main website (which is just a WordPress site) onto a proper hosted service in a reliable location. This spring I moved that site onto SFU IT Services’ own virtual hosting service, and stopped worrying about weekend power outages.

Then, in anticipation of this fall’s incoming MPub cohort we replaced the iMacs in our grad student offices with a suite of brand new machines—nice for them, and it also freed up a squadron of older machines for other uses. Two of these I commandeered as replacements for my old Minis, spruced up with Ubuntu 13.04 Linux, and now occupying the space left by my small stack of Minis and the horrendous old beige 15″ CRT that was hooked up to them (I swear the last CRT monitor in active use at Harbour Centre). One of them is the new tkbr/thinkubator machine, hosting a veritable warren of WordPress sites, two or three Gitit wikis, an experimental Booktype install, various file services (including ownCloud, as soon as I figure out how to serve certificates properly), and whatever else we need. The second one is set up pretty much identically (er, redundantly) but serves primarily as my desktop machine, as I’ve come to the conclusion that every bit of software I actually use anymore can run as well or better on Linux than on MacOS.

So far so good. The real move forward this fall, however, is in the virtual hosting we have from the amazing folks at ReclaimHosting. This I set up for our new undergrad course, The Publication of Self in Everyday Life. Taking a cue from Jim Groom’s Domain of One’s Own idea, we designed the new course so that the students would begin by registering their own personal domain name and building out their “personal cyberinfrastructure.” ReclaimHosting was exactly the perfect service to facilitate that vision; already we have 50-odd students with their own sites hosted through the service, plus our own posiel.com, which hosts a WordPress site for the new course, an RSS aggregation to glue the students feeds together, an experimental Pressbooks site, and various other bits and pieces.

I tweeted the other day that it seemed like 80% of what I’d done as a teacher this fall was system administration. It occurs to me that perhaps that’s an accurate reflection of what publishing is actually about in 2013.